Renewable energy: the search for storage

Boxing Day, 2011. I was having lunch with my dad and some of his neighbours in the quaint little market town of Eye, north Suffolk.


Local tempers had been fraying about the planned construction of a modest wind farm comprising three smallish turbines on a nearby disused military airbase. Our host had placed me next to a notorious local climate change sceptic: a retired director of a well-known oil company, who cheerfully explained to me that the turbines would be next to useless.


The fact that we can’t control wind supply, and can’t store the energy it generates, meant that half the energy it created would go to waste, he said (and a lot more besides).


I chose not to rise to the bait and focused instead on annihilating my sherry trifle.


It’s true that one of the biggest barriers to ramping up renewable energy use is its intermittency. It’s up to the gods how much sun we get, and how strong the wind blows, on any given day. Sometimes, particularly at this time of year, the sun doesn’t even bother showing its face.


This is very different to energy from fossil fuels, where power stations can be brought into use whenever we choose.


So what can be done about this?


We can manage and reduce our demand for energy


Well, before looking at how we control energy supply, we can look at demand. Why not get people and organisations who are able to postpone some of their electricity consumption to do so at times of peak demand, and reward them for doing so?


Emerging cleantech companies like KiwiPower and Flexitricity have taken advantage of a National Grid scheme to pay larger power consumers in both the private and public sector to reduce consumption during peak hours. For example, KiwiPower’s demand response partnership with Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust has enabled the Trust to develop a new income stream amounting to a nifty £100,000 a year.


Demand response management is already fairly advanced with large corporates, though it’s still early days for extending this to smaller businesses, let alone domestic users.


As well as managing peaks and troughs in demand for energy, we can also use less of it in the first place – in our buildings, road vehicles, aeroplanes and so on. And big savings are possible. For example, Infosys in India decreased its electricity consumption per staff member by 44% across its Indian business campuses – saving a phenomenal $80 million in the process. And the National Trust cut its energy bills in its Welsh properties by over 40% over two years, through a combination of energy efficiency and behaviour change measures.


We can store energy


But the biggest nut to crack of all is of course, storage. Storing electricity is currently only possible at low density, so you need a lot of space to store it – and it gets very heavy. Just think how weighty your average car engine battery feels. The batteries in a Nissan Leaf – the first mass production electric car to be built in the UK – tip the scales at 300 kilograms, the weight of four people.


Although storage is already being used at large installations like Dinorwig and Ffestiniog pumped storage power stations in Wales, which pump water from  a low to a high reservoir then let it flow back down generating power – sites like these are in short supply.


Innovating to make batteries smaller, lighter, and longer-lasting, is obviously key; and there are some exciting developments here.


For example, cleantech pioneer Moixa has invented a domestic storage battery called the ‘Maslow’. Bioregional has worked with it in an Oxfordshire housing estate for the past few years to demonstrate the benefits of storing and using locally generated solar power in local homes. Some 205kW of solar PV panels have been placed on the roofs of homes and the local community centre, with 82 homes kitted out with their own Maslow battery. The batteries are linked via the internet to create a virtual local energy grid.


As well as radically boosting the amount of electricity that can be retained and used locally, this reduces the need for expensive grid upgrades needed to cope with big exports of solar electricity and saves residents money. 


And it’s not just smaller companies that are entering this market – so too are some global giants. In 2015, Elon Musk of Tesla unveiled its new home storage battery called a ‘Powerwall’ – a lithium-ion battery that can be mounted on the wall or floor of your home. It comes with an app so you can monitor your solar energy use and also get alerts if cloudy weather is on the way. The first installations are set to begin in January.


Convergence is bringing new opportunities


There’s also convergence in the offing among the worlds of technology, lower-impact transport, renewable energy generation and storage.


Earlier this year Nissan unveiled a new power system where electric cars feed energy back to the grid. As chairman of Nissan Europe Paul Wilcox said: “We believe electric vehicles can become mobile power units supplying cities and their homes, schools and hospitals. Some may think this is science fiction but we believe it is science fact.”


One of the most exciting things about all of this is that there is a market. Progress isn’t happening because people think it’s worthy, or because it’ll help tackle climate change (which it will). It’s happening because there’s a business case.


There’s even potential for the development of an online trading system in energy. Just imagine, in less than 10 years’ time, you could be driving home from work in your electric car with a battery that has been fully charged by the solar panels on your office roof.


You know that you only need a quarter battery charge to get back to the office the next day. So you plug into the mains when you get home and then, that evening, you sell more than half of the electricity in your car to the grid at a time of peak demand.


An app works out that the cost of the electricity purchased from your office roof is lower than the price of the power you can sell to the grid in the evening, and carries out the transactions for you.


Without you even needing to think about it, your car is earning money just by sitting in your driveway!


So, Mr Climate Change Sceptic of Eye, Suffolk, stick that in your oil pipeline and smoke it. 


Julia Hawkins is Head of Communications and Policy at Bioregional. 


Photograph: Shutterstock.

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Achieving the SDGs and the alchemy of partnerships with purpose

If you are wondering how your business, social enterprise or charity can best play its part in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you are not alone. Many of us are wondering the same thing…


The Goals were agreed by 193 UN member states in September 2015. Their founding document, Transforming our World – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, makes clear that while delivery of the Goals is the responsibility of governments to lead on, multi-stakeholder partnerships – including those between business and civil society – will also be essential if we are to achieve them. The Goals are, in effect, a comprehensive sustainability to-do list, with something in there for everyone. As such, they’re a huge opportunity for our planet. But how to get involved?


Down the years I’ve found that if you want to make something happen, but aren’t quite sure what to do, it’s amazing what you can achieve if you just make a start. And for me, partnerships are the way to go.


For example, as a purpose-led entrepreneurial charity, Bioregional brings creativity, expertise and commitment to finding ways that we can all live well within our planet’s natural limits. We call this One Planet Living.


But of course, we can’t do this alone. As we develop new projects and initiatives we find others who bring their own expertise, resources and perspectives. Together these all add up to something none of us would have been able to achieve on our own. Clearer plans, partnerships and action on the ground naturally emerge.


In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the best conditions for creating that special alchemy of partnerships with purpose-led organisations. So here are my top four tips for nurturing great outcomes to achieve the SDGs:


Engage at a formative stage. The SDGs turned out as well as they did because governments created the space to engage with civil society, business and expert mission-driven organisations not as an afterthought, but right from the start – and then throughout the process.


Governments were able to draw on an incredible well of enthusiasm and expertise just by making the space for it and by giving due respect to us all. We were invited to attend every meeting, provide feedback, present our own figures, suggest different text, and organise events. We were also able to champion the issues that are closest to our hearts, and where our expertise lies. The key issue for Bioregional was the concept of sustainable consumption and production, which is now Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. 


Inevitably, some political ‘fudges’ had to be made – for example, we weren’t able to get the concept of ‘natural limits’ acknowledged. But the Goals do include the myriad of sustainable development issues in a very complete way thanks to the inclusive approach taken to developing them.


I also saw this approach play out well in the way that both the London 2012 Olympic bid and the government’s Eco-Town plans and projects were developed.


Be ready to be challenged on your core business. If you really want your business to be part of transforming our world, then it needs to be core to the business. This means taking a step back and a hard look at the purpose of the business. Is it part of that 2030 vision that the Sustainable Development Goals embodies, or is it in some way driving us in the other direction?


The sweet spot is where sustainability and business models align, and there’s a sense of real common purpose. Take B&Q, for example. At the start of our nine-year partnership with the home improvement retailer, we looked at how it could help its customers live a sustainable life, considering a customer’s average ecological footprint. This highlighted that the patio heaters had to go, but there was a real opportunity to promote energy-saving products and helping people growing their own veg. Both of these turned out to be best-selling product ranges, but this wouldn’t have happened so comprehensively without B&Q’s readiness to listen and be challenged. 


Likewise, on the London 2012 Olympics, following through on the bid’s sustainability strategy, which was developed and written by Bioregional and the bid company, London 2012. An analysis of the consumption- based carbon footprint by purpose-led organisation Best Foot Forward showed that it was the construction and fit-out of the events which would have the biggest carbon impact – not everyone flying in, as you might expect. This flowed through into strategies for reducing the volume of construction materials and take-back arrangements for venue fit-out items like seating and air conditioning. This saved hundreds of millions of pounds as well as cutting the carbon footprint.


Only settle for genuine partnerships. While companies that are really pushing the boundaries of business can rightly take credit for their achievements, purpose-led organisations play a critical role, bringing their unique commitment, passion and expertise to the mix. This demonstrates the received wisdom that for partnerships to work each partner needs to bring something to the party; each partner needs to have a clear role – and most importantly, all partners need to respect each other. You know the real magic is happening when you experience the camaraderie and fun that can result from successful partnerships.


Get started by getting together. So what next? Bioregional and a few other mission-led organisations saw there was a need for UK-based organisations to meet and explore how to take action on the SDGs. Since January 2015 we have been involved in establishing UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD). Our aim is to create one of those formative spaces for the magic of partnerships to deliver on the vision of the SDGs in the UK.


So whether it’s in this forum or any other, let’s all take the time to start talking to potential partners about how we can transform our world together. Let’s get started.


Sue Riddlestone OBE is CEO and co-founder at Bioregional. 

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